– I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. –
Is vocabulary destiny? Why do clocks “talk” to the Nahua people of Mexico? Will A.I. researchers ever produce true human-machine dialogue? In this mesmerizing collection of essays, Daniel Tammet answers these and many other questions about the intricacy and profound power of language.
In Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing, Tammet goes back in time to London to explore the numeric language of his autistic childhood; in Iceland, he learns why the name Blær became a court case; in Canada, he meets one of the world’s most accomplished lip readers. He chats with chatbots; contrives an “e”-less essay on lipograms; studies the grammar of the telephone; contemplates the significance of disappearing dialects; and corresponds with native Esperanto speakers – in their mother tongue.
A joyous romp through the world of words, letters, stories, and meanings, Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing explores the way communication shapes reality. From the art of translation to the lyricism of sign language, these essays display the stunning range of Tammet’s literary and polyglot talents.
I chose this book because…
This book appeals to the linguistic nerd in me. The mention of AI also appeals to the computer science nerd in me. Each of the stories mentioned in the blurb seem really interesting, and I appreciate the variety. Linguistics! is! cool!
Upon reading it…
My favourite essay was the first one, which was “Finding My Voice.” This essay was about Tammet himself. He has high-functioning autistic savant syndrome and synesthesia, and growing up, his language was numeric. Understandably, this numeric language of his childhood made it difficult for him to communicate with his peers, but with his essay, we get a peek into his numeric language and his way of thinking, which I found super fascinating.
The rest of the essays felt more like history lessons and research facts about minority languages, but shared as a narrative, which made it a little more interesting, but the first essay written about his personal experience was still my favourite. Tammet has an innate curiosity for language that’s on another level, and has made me realise that I’m really not as much of a linguistic nerd as I thought, though I wish I was. Or maybe I’m just interested in a different aspect of linguistics. There were aspects of some languages mentioned in the book that had similarities to things I studied in my linguistics courses, so my interest definitely picked up with those connections, but otherwise, I might not have found those parts that interesting. Maybe I’m more interested in going deeply into one language than glossing through main ideas of several, but I can turn to academic papers for that. Maybe I’m an all or nothing kinda gal?
However, when someone writes with as much passion as Tammet does, it’s difficult not to get sucked up into the excitement as well! I do have to say that this isn’t a light read, and having an interest in language yourself would help.
(more like 3.5)
If you like this book, you might like…
Flâneuse by Laura Elkin
The world was made up of words. But I thought and felt and sometimes dreamed in a private language of numbers.
Sixty-one two two two two eleven
One hundred and thirty-one forty-nine
As sounds and social currency, words could not yet hold me.
All literature, I finally realized with a jolt, amounted to an act of translation: a condensing, a sifting, a realignment of the author’s thought-world into words.
I had more than one book in me. And each of my subsequent books…was different. Each taught me what my limits weren’t. I could do this. And this. And this as well.
Enthusiastic students don’t make good dunces.
For the director, poetry was only a side effect of language, peripheral; for me it was essential.
Grammar and memory come from playing with words, rubbing them on the fingers and on the tongue, experiencing the various meanings they give off.
Assurance rejuvenated them, made their skin shine. I had never seen the women look as beautiful as they did then.
Every voice carries certain personality traits—the tongue-tiedness of one; of another, the overreaching vowels. Every voice, in preferring dinner to supper, or in pronouncing this as dis, betrays traces of its past. But vocabulary is not destiny. Words, regardless of their pedigree, make only as much sense as we choose to give them. We are the teachers, not they. To possess fluency, or “verbal intelligence,” is to animate words with our imagination. Every word is a bird we teach to sing.
Reality responds to language. Reality is polyglot.
Humans in conversation update and modify social reality from moment to moment.